A Forager’s Guide to Chokecherry (Prunus Virginiana)

Chokecherry (Prunus Virginiana)
Prunus virginiana, common name chokecherry, is a large, deciduous shrub. Chokeberry is a native plant of North America. The chokecherry fruit presents itself from August through September and is generally considered edible.

Prunus virginiana plant profile

Chokeberry is also known as:

  • Bitter berry
  • Virginia bird cherry

There are three known varieties of chokecherry that include:

  • P. virginiana or eastern chokecherry
  • Demissa or western chokecherry, producing dark red fruit
  • Melanocarpa which will also produce a dark, blackish fruit

A related cultivar that can be easily found is called the Canada red.

In late spring, the dark green leaves of the chokecherry provide a background to white flowers that grow in dense clusters with spring and summer bloom time. They eventually give rise to bright but dark red fruit that eventually ripens to a dark purple.

Unpruned chokecherries can grow up to 20-30 feet in height, making it more of a small tree than a shrub.

Why do they call them chokecherries?

Chokecherries derive their name from their astringent and slightly bitter flavor before ripening.

Even when ripe, these berries can have a taste that many consider unpleasant.

Chokecherry berries
Chokecherry berries

Where does chokecherry grow?

Chokecherries can be found in various areas across the United States and Canada. It grows naturally in USDA hardiness zones 2-7.

These are areas with full sun and sandy loam or silty soil, which means it’s most typically found:

  • Along hillsides
  • Near streams
  • In canyons
  • In grasslands

In these areas, chokeberry may be found in individually growing plants or within a thicket of tight shrubby plants connected and tightened through the many suckers produced.

Although chokecherry can handle part shade, it will not do well in overly shaded areas. And while it tolerates many levels of soil ph, it will not grow well in soils with heavy clay content or regions that are overly moist.

From an environmental standpoint, chokecherries are often deliberately used to prevent soil erosion or to create a food source and habitat for local wildlife. Its prolific white flowers are a powerful draw for pollinators of all kinds, including the silk moth.

It is particularly well known as a favorite home for:

  • Tent caterpillars
  • Aphids
  • Coral and striped hairstreak

These are not positives as these are known pests and are often a threat to other fruit trees and nearby plants.

Chokecherry Identification

Chokecherries have a number of identifying attributes.

The following are the most notable:

  • Dark green, elliptical leaves glossy on one side and pale green on the other.
  • 5 petaled white flowers that grow in cylindrical racemes.
  • Dark red or purple fruits that grow as rounded drupes.
  • Irregular crown.
  • Reddish brown and sometimes gray bark.
  • Lenticels that grow from the mature bark to assist with photosynthesis.
  • Root system comprised of rhizomes.

Accurately identifying chokecherries is crucial to those who grow or farm sweet cherries or peaches. This is because chokecherries are susceptible to a disease called X-disease. When near these other fruit trees, leafhoppers can spread this disease and infect the surrounding trees.

Chokecherry flowers
Chokecherry flowers

Chokecherry vs. wild cherry

Chokecherries are not the same as wild black cherry trees (Prunus serotina).

To begin with, trees producing black cherries, often referred to as black cherries, grow much taller than chokecherries – sometimes as tall as 80 feet.

Black cherries also have a wider growth range, easily found in USDA hardiness zones 3-9.

Other differences include:

  • The broader size and conical shape of the wild black cherry canopy.
  • Autumn leaves color; black cherry will have brightly colored leaves, whereas chokecherries’ will be dull.
  • Chokecherry will spread via suckers and grow into dense thickets; wild black cherry will not and requires less maintenance.

Perhaps the biggest difference is the flavor. Where chokecherry will have a tart, sometimes bitter flavor even when ripe, black cherries will be sweet and flavorful.

Black cherry
Black cherry

Can you eat chokecherries?

The fruit of the chokecherry is edible. The leaves and seeds are not.

The seed of the chokecherry contains amygdalin which the body will convert to hydrocyanic acid or cyanide. Cyanide has a high degree of toxicity and can impede respiration.

Eating the fruit of the chokecherry will not have an adverse effect if only the flesh is eaten and the seed is spat out.

But because the fruit is so small, the largest risk for toxic overdose is to livestock and children who may not know to spit the see out and swallow them instead.

Wild animal species don’t seem to be affected.

How to use chokecherries in the kitchen

There are a number of ways to use chokecherry in the kitchen, the most common of which is by making jams and jellies.

  • The chokecherry actually has a long culinary history. Native American tribes would create a juice from the fruit that was said to ease sore throats and diarrhea.
  • One of the most popular ways to prepare and keep chokeberries was (and still is) to dehydrate or dry them. Doing this not only intensifies the sweetness and preserves them for later use but also neutralizes the toxins in the seeds.
  • Today chokecherries are used to make fruit leather, jelly, and even wine. But, of course, they can also be eaten fresh, provided the seeds are spat out.

For most recipes, you will first need to extract the juice from the chokeberries. Keep in mind that chokeberries are small, and you will need to collect quite a few to produce the right quantity of juice.

Juicing chokeberries is a simple process:

  • Wash fruit thoroughly
  • Place in pot and cover with water.
  • Bring to a boil and then reduce to simmer for 15 minutes.
  • Strain through a cheesecloth.

For reference, one pound of chokecherries will yield approximately 2 cups of juice.

For a simple treat, try making Chokecherry syrup and add it to oatmeal, pancakes, or desserts.

Lorin

Lorin is a writer, photographer and nature enthusiast in Sacramento, CA. In addition to gardening, she makes a regular practice of forging for edible plants and flowers. Nature nourishes if you know where to look.

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